No one doubts we are in the grip of the third great age of innovation: the time of technology. but while the agricultural and industrial revolutions brought lasting and sometimes radical social change, technology is different.
The rate of advancement we are experiencing is like nothing that has gone before, and it has the power to transform the lives of everyone on the planet. This brings an unprecedented level of optimism for solving global ills – but equally raises unique concerns. Artificial intelligence (AI) and a future that is approaching at breakneck speed were among several technology topics discussed at UHY’s Annual Conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in October 2016. UHY Global spoke to prominent AI and tech presenters at the event.
AT THE LEADING EDGE
Dr Long H. Vu is an IBM Research Staff Member in the Department of Exploratory Stream Analytics at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, New York. He spoke about current developments in AI and in particular the projects coming out of IBM Watson, the computer giant’s own technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.
“We all know that computers are used to analyse large amounts of structured data, but 80% of the data available to us every day is actually unstructured in nature, and has up until now not been fully explored or understood by computers,” says Dr Vu. “This means as human beings we are trying to absorb multiple sources and types of data, such as spoken words, text, emails, photographs, social messaging, CCTV, audiovisual, documents, reports – all natural forms of communication – without much help. And every industry is now producing more and more new data, at an alarming rate. IBM Watson is a system that can process and categorise all of this material in huge volumes and at great speed. In terms of statistical analysis, it can use a whole universe of data, not just a sample. We call it a cognitive system – once it has understood its data, it can analyse and produce results in a reasoned way; it can weigh up and select the best answers. It is a thinking machine.”
There are dozens of underlying open technologies that contribute to this artificial intelligence: text and language translation (IBM Watson currently provides full support for six languages with many more under development), tone analysers, visual recognition, image tagging, relationship extraction, facial recognition, and many more. But of equal significance to AI is machine learning, which never stops. Dr Vu explains that this is how a system develops expertise. “Like a person, Watson gets better and better over time. The more data it is fed, the more ‘reason’ it can apply and the more behaviour patterns and nuance it can learn. The result is exceptionally robust output, be it statistical or semantic insight, or even real-time conversation with a person, through a user interface like Nao.”
RISE OF THE ROBOTS
Built by global robotic specialists SoftBank Robotics, Nao is a humanoid robot which, powered by IBM Watson, can move, listen and understand human language, speak and interact with human beings and change his movement and behaviour, depending on the conversation context. For many people, Nao – and similar robot-like interfaces – bring to life the populist future where robots walk, talk and do the housework. For Dr Vu, they are one type of interface that humans may use to access AI systems; and the dystopian vision of robots taking control is far from where cognitive systems are headed. “In some sense, AI technology is no different to other scientific advances – nuclear, say, or genetics – where discovery comes with certain ethical dimensions. But the reality is that machines do not replicate our deepest human abilities. In our application of knowledge we may call on unique collaborations of empathy, creativity, humour, common sense, instinct and vision. We have morals, imagination, compassion. We can dream, we can abstract and we can generalise. What robots – or cognitive systems – actually give us is the ability to amplify our brainpower, not replace it. The benefits far outweigh the risks.”
To illustrate his point, Dr Vu cites several applications that IBM has already developed for use in a range of industries. In healthcare, for example, Watson’s Oncology Advisor exemplifies the new partnerships that will be made possible between people and computers. “We trained Watson to develop diagnostic expertise in breast and colon cancers, by enabling the processing of over 15,000 hours of oncology expertise, six million articles, 20,000 clinical trial outputs and over one and a half million patient records. The application now supports real oncology consultants in real hospitals.” Similar developments are underway in genomics and diabetes.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Watson is also set to revolutionise other data-heavy sectors, including telecommunications, oil & gas, education and professional services – where automated analysis and insight from large volumes of financial or case data, for example, may free the professional from mechanical tasks and, as Dr Vu describes it, “enable deeper added-value advisory relationships.” This is good news for accountants like UHY who already strive to promote this kind of advisory culture.
It is an exciting time for computer science specialists. Dr Vu believes that IBM Watson – and other cognitive platforms – will continue to grow and deliver applications that benefit individuals, businesses and the planet. “There are many talented people out there – professionals, specialists, entrepreneurs – looking for ways to meet our 21st century challenges,” he says. “It is good to be involved in providing them with some means to find answers.”
Dr Long H. Vu holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and has published 25 journal articles and conference research papers. He was the recipient of the prestigious Mark Weiser Best Paper Award in 2011, given by the IEEE International Conference on Pervasive Computing and Communications. He has also filed four US patents. To find out more about IBM’s AI platform, visit www.ibm.com/watson.
BE PREPARED FOR A TECHNOLOGY TSUNAMI
According to scientists, futurologists and science fiction writers, we are on an exponential technology curve which, they predict, will shortly consume us in a tidal wave of disruption and change.
And there is enough evidence to suggest they are right. It does seem more probable than possible that the technological revolution will change the way we live forever. Technology that at first empowered people has already started to replace them in areas of high volume low skilled work. Smart factories deploying robotic process automation are transforming manufacturing and logistics. Driverless cars – inconceivable to mainstream thinking a few years ago – are now on our roads. Drones are set to disrupt conventional distribution. DNA is mapped.
The first wave to break was the internet, from which a new order emerged – technology start-ups that are today’s new household names: YouTube, Netflix, eBay, PayPal, Wikipedia, Skype, TripAdvisor, Flickr, Spotify, Facebook. They brought innovation and disruption to the old ways and many corporate giants were caught sleeping, to their eventual cost. Now, we have the Internet of Things, where connectivity infrastructures – mobile, satellite, the cloud – are enabling connectedness with few limitations. At the same time, many see the current decade as the time of robotics and artificial intelligence. The exponential trends are hard to deny.
According to entrepreneur and technology practitioner Juan Martinez-Barea, all companies and industries will become high-tech ones. “Technology will be present for everyone,” he says, “the only question is which technology? Business managers must ask themselves: what technology is going to disrupt my industry?“
The auto industry is one which typifies the rate of change brought about by technology advancement. “In ten years the car industry will be very different,” says Juan. “It is likely that all new cars will be electric, and autonomous (driverless) vehicles will be commonplace. New competitors will own the customer relationship – not the automakers, but companies like Apple, Google or Microsoft. The ownership model will change and car transport as a service could become ubiquitous. And none of this prediction relies on anything that is not already either under development or in commercial use.
“We have a tsunami coming,” he says. But Juan remains optimistic that it will be a force for good. “Every sector has dozens, if not hundreds, of entrepreneurs working hard at solving problems using different technologies. This swarm of start-ups is the most powerful force on earth.” His own bioinformatics start-up is focused on developing and commercialising a universal test for early detection of cancer, aiming to saving millions of lives. “We have been working on this for four years,” he says. “Will we make it? I don’t know. I hope so. But I am sure that by 2020, someone will.”
Juan Martinez-Barea has worked with more than a thousand start-ups, has advised and coached hundreds of entrepreneurs, and has helped to launch more than 100 high-tech new ventures. Find out more at www.juanmartinezbarea.com.